Opinion polls

Robert Gordon Menzies writes:

Finally, if the democratic politician is really to understand the importance of his art and practice it, he must be a leader. It is still as true as it was when Edmund Burke said it, that a Member of Parliament is not a delegate but a representative, bound to bring not merely his vote but his judgment to the service of his people. Just as a democracy cannot be preserved in war without a great and prevailing physical courage, so it cannot be wisely governed and preserved in peace without moral courage.

All of us who are in politics are disposed to be nervous about current opinion in the electorate. This nervousness is, so to speak, our occupational disease. We therefore need to remind ourselves frequently that we who are in Congress or Parliament are expected to know more about political issues than private citizens. We have greater opportunities of study, more authoritative sources of information, a better chance of hearing and considering both sides. We owe our constituents guidance. We are not bound to spend out days, like the gentleman in the old bromide, “sitting on a fence with both ears to the ground”.

I will say that the art of politics is not that of devising ways and means of securing the overthrow of informed judgment by hasty and misinformed opinion, of considered policy by sudden mass emotion. The regiments of politics cannot, with safety to the state, be led from behind.

Many of us, with sincere respect for the carefulness and accuracy of such poll- takers as Dr Gallup, are anxious about the effect which this new technique will have upon the practice of politics. If it serves to tell the politician of widely entertained errors which he must attack, well and good. But if it merely tells him to beware, because opinion is against him, many good ideas will, I fear, be abandoned and Gilbert’s Duke of Plaza Toro may yet be a President or Prime Minister.

From “The Art of Politics”, New York Times, 28 November 1948.

Menzies had been in the US throughout the election campaign at which President Truman’s win upset the tipsters who had stopped polling two weeks out from polling day and thereby missed the swing back to the Democrat.